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Amid 49er Clouds, a Silver Lining Called Rice

September 15, 1986|STEVE LOWERY | Times Staff Writer

Gloom is understating the atmosphere of the San Francisco 49er locker room Sunday. One fell swoop of Ram kicker Mike Lansford's right foot had handed them a bitter 16-13 loss at Anaheim Stadium.

One twist of Joe Montana's back as he attempted a pass the previous Sunday against Tampa Bay had put the National Football League's top-rated passer out, probably, for the 1986 season with a back injury.

Dwight Clark looked stunned. Bill Walsh had what appeared to be tears running down his face as he made the announcement about Montana. Ronnie Lott talked about getting tough with his teammates and snapped at reporters' questions.

And then, there was Jerry Rice radiating in front of his locker-room stall, flashing a billboard-sized smile, dressed in white shoes, white pants and white jacket. The man looked sharp.

Rice assured everyone that he was just as disturbed about the loss of Montana as the next guy.

But then the next guy had not caught 6 passes for 157 yards and a touchdown as Rice had. "Clearly, we were stunned by the great catches of Jerry Rice," Ram Coach John Robinson said. "We think he is one of the clearly dominant players in the league."

At 6:15 of the third quarter, Rice and Jeff Kemp connected on a 66-yard touchdown pass that brought the 49ers to within three, 13-10.

Later in the period, Kemp completed a 43-yard pass along the sideline to Rice to set up Ray Wersching's field goal that tied the score, 13-13.

Before anyone gets too carried away, this was only his second-best performance as far as Rice and the Rams are concerned. Last December, in Rice's rookie season, he caught 10 passes for 241 yards and a touchdown.

Robinson said he shuddered to think what would happen if the 49ers decided to throw the ball to Rice 60 times. When a reporter informed Rice of Robinson's comment, he smiled slyly and said: "Well, there will be other games."

So is Jerry Rice great or what?

"Jerry Rice, I think, will someday be the greatest receiver in 49ers history," said Dwight Clark, perhaps the greatest receiver in 49er history.

Rice is 6-2, 200 pounds, fast, has great hands, caught about a zillion passes at a place called Mississippi Valley State and was named the National Football Conference's rookie of the year by the NFL Players' Assn. and United Press International.

Oh, life in the National Football League has just been milk and cookies for Rice. Well, if you forget that little period that lasted about, oh, all of last season, when many doubted Rice's skills and the wisdom of the 49ers for choosing him as the 16th player in the draft.

"Last year was tough," Rice said. "Learning the offense here is difficult, and there were some people who thought I couldn't play."

Those people pointed to dropped passes and the fact that Rice did not immediately become the deep threat the 49ers were grooming him to become.

"We have a lot of weapons here," he said. "Everyone has a role. Some people thought I wasn't filling my role."

Clark said any difficulty that Rice had last year (relative difficulty--he caught 49 passes for 927 yards and an 18.6-yards-per-catch average) were due to the complicated 49er offense.

"It's tough to come in here and try to learn this offense; there are a lot of things to think about," Clark said. "I think last year Jerry was thinking too much. This year he's just reacting. Doing what comes naturally. The more he does that, the more the rest of the league better watch out."

Rice caught 5 passes for 54 yards against Tampa Bay in the 49er season opener. After the Rams game, he said he feels a great deal more comfortable. Walsh's offense, once a cloudy blur, is now a trusted friend.

"Everything comes from the way Bill Walsh has set up the offense," Rice said. "I'm bound to have big games with this offense."

But can he sustain it?

"I think if I put forth the effort, I'll be able to help out here and fulfill my role."

Which is bad music to the cornerbacks of the NFL. Jerry Rice, very well could be/will be great.

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